The Iberian Peninsula, characterised by warm climate and superb beaches, has always been a very popular tour destination drawing millions of enthusiastic tourists every year to famous areas such as the Costa del Sol in Spain and the Algarve in Portugal. However, there is much more than that in this part of Europe: astonishing architecture spacing from monuments of Moorish heritage to ultramodern design, peaceful fishermen villages, lively festivals, flamenco dancing and tantalising folklore. Spanish culture greatly influenced modern art from the late 1800’s, with artists like Antoni Gaudí (Art Nouveau), Pablo Picasso (expressionism, cubism, surrealism), Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí (surrealism).
Spain is well-known around the world also for the typical zest of living of their inhabitants. Spaniards have a completely different life pace from other Europeans. They typically have lunch between 1 and 3 pm, dinner between 9 and 10 pm and they rarely go to bed before the early hours of the night. The peak for radio listening in the morning is around 10 am and prime time TV shows in Spain starts generally around 10 pm and can last until 1 am. The Spanish use actually a specific word, madrugada, for the hours between midnight and the dawn, the time when the streets are sometimes still full of people enjoying good food and drinks and having fun. Despite the stereotypical freedom of spirit and the way of enjoying life, the fulcrum of the Spanish society is still considered to be the family and the religious tradition.
Spain has undergone a deep economic and social transformation following WWII, despite not being directly involved in this event. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was largely a rural country. Then gradually people moved into cities and became testimonials of an incredible economic growth during the 1960s. Tourism has played a major role in the development of the country contributing today with more than 10% of the national GDP and this industry is so important in Spain that the World Tourism Organisation has its headquarters in the capital Madrid.
Spain is separated from the rest of Europe by the range of mountains of Pyrenees, with the main crest forming a natural divide from France and sandwiching the small state of Andorra in between. The vast Spanish territory has both Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines and the landscape and microclimate change dramatically from one side to the other.
The capital Madrid lies perfectly in the centre of the country and it is characterized for this reason by hot dry summers and mild cool winters. Their citizens (madrileños) are told to have a peculiar spirit and an attitude completely different from all the other Spanish people. Also, Madrid is considered to be the nominal centre of business, commerce and culture in Spain but it is rivalled in most of these things by Barcelona, the biggest municipality of Catalonia. Although there are several historical monuments in the city, Barcelona became popular over the years especially thanks to the majestic buildings belonging to the Modernism era (an example above all is the Sagrada Familia).
Spanish history has been full of different events and the continuous change of the political scenario has given to this country a unique cultural identity. Colonized originally by Phoenicians and Greeks, the entire Iberian Peninsula was then conquered by the Romans which were attracted by the important mineral resources and the agricultural potential of the territory. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the peninsula was first invaded by the Visigoths and then by the Moors, arrived from North Africa. During the Moorish domination, Spain underwent a period of great prosperity and incredible civilization, excelling in mathematics, astronomy and arts. The northern kingdoms started to reconquer part of the territories dominated by the Moors after the marriage between Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon, completing the Spanish reunification process after the take of Granada in 1492 (the same year of discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus). The reunification brought to Spain a second period of economic prosperity and development, abruptly interrupted centuries later by Napoleon’s invasion. The focus on keeping territories away from the other European superpowers was also the root cause of the loss of all the American colonies. The anarchy and political instability in Spain lasted for several decades, leading to dictatorship of the General Francisco Franco in 1936. The rule of El Caudillo (Spanish term for dictator or strongman) ended in 1975 and since then Spain has been a democratic state governed by parliamentary constitutional monarchy.
Spain is Europe’s third largest country and that is part of the reason why visiting it properly could take a lot of time. There are many things to do in Spain, either as city sightseeing or outdoor activities. For the lucky travellers with enough time to reach peripheral cities like Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Malaga, a visit to all the Moorish relics in Andalusia is definitely a must. Northern Spain also features a wide variety of landscapes and cultural aspects. Galicia, undoubtedly the greenest region in Spain, is home to some of the most spectacular views on the Atlantic coast. The gorgeous city of Santiago de Compostela is also located in this region. The border between Cantabria and Asturias is a very popular destination between hikers and nature lovers, while the Basque country is paradise of regional cuisine, seaside attractions and cultural heritage including Bilbao with its top-class Guggenheim museum. Eastern Spain boasts an incredible range of landscapes and climates, going from the snowy peaks of Pyrenees to the beaches around Barcelona, Tarragona and Valencia. This region has also many historical sights slightly far from the coast, like in the case of Zaragoza. Other popular destinations are represented by the Balearic Islands. Mallorca is largely considered the most culturally rich island of the archipelago in addition to being the largest one, while Menorca shows a quite relaxing atmosphere and easy-going pace of life. Comparable in size but on the opposite end to this latter lifestyle-wise there is the popular island of Ibiza, known mainly for its exuberant nightlife and beach lounging. Formentera, the smallest of the Balearic Islands, remains still largely uncontaminated and it is the ideal location for a relaxing summer break.
Most entertainment activities in Spain start well after 10pm so taking advantage of a “siesta” in the late afternoon is the perfect way to get ready for such events. For those willing to find an alternative to partying and enjoying tapas on the beach till late evening, this wonderful country also offers a wide variety of live performances and diurnal outdoor activities. Spain is renowned for its lively festivals, the most famous of which are: El festival de Jerez (one of the most important flamenco festivals) in Jerez de la Frotera, San Fermín (“running of the bulls”) in Pamplona, la Tomatina (“tomato battle”) in Buñol, Fallas (St. Joseph’s Day) and Moros y Cristianos (commemoration of battles between Moors and Christians) around Valencia and naturally Sónar (popular electronic music festival) in Barcelona.
Another unique experience is offered by the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage trail attracting every year tens of thousands of pilgrims and curious passionate eager to encounter this historical walk through some of the most beautiful towns of the peninsula.
No one will fully enjoy visiting Spain without trying at least some of its best cuisine specialties and without tasting some of its flavourful wines and sangrias. Valencia is still considered the homeland of the perfect traditional paella, made with beans, rabbit and chicken. An alternative delicious variant is made with fish (pescado). Other specialties include the jamon iberico (ham coming from the indigenous black pig), the tortilla de patatas (a tasty omelette with potatoes), garbanzos con espinacas (chickpeas with spinach). One thing to try absolutely is the cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig), specialty of Segovia possibly accompanied by a glass of ruby tempranillo wine from La Rioja region.